‘We’ve all but stopped paying attention to climate change, the single greatest crisis the planet has ever faced.’ Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Donald Trump may be costing us many things: a sense of national decency, a stable global order, a generation of professional civil servants and diplomats. Or maybe not. Maybe we can claw those losses back – perhaps the reaction will begin with the midterm elections and we’ll slowly return our way towards something that looks like the old normal.
But he’s definitely costing us one precious thing, and that’s time. It rolls past every day as we stand necessarily transfixed by his transgressions, and since it can’t be rolled back there are victims who – whatever the future holds – are paying an unrefundable price.
These thoughts were on my mind as I protested outside the Vermont governor’s office with other local members of the Poor People’s Campaign, the nationwide renewal of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s final crusade. (We were hoping to do a sit-in, but the door to the governor’s office had been cleverly locked, perhaps after they’d heard us singing We Shall Not Be Moved for 20 minutes outside. If you need a crime performed efficiently, perhaps best not to hire an idealist.)
This Poor People’s Campaign has been by many measures a great success, moving tens of thousands of people to action in every state capitol, around issues ranging from immigration and racial justice to healthcare and environmental justice. But it has barely broken through the president’s nonstop noise into the national news, and so the stories of the people involved have been too little heard. “Grinding poverty” is a cliched phrase but it has a real meaning: the day-in day-out erosion of lives when there’s too little money for doctors, for food, for transportation. This is happening, now. Real lives are being lived, and lived in needlessly cruel conditions. Real lives are being lost.
The Poor People’s Campaign protest on Capitol Hill by transporting an empty casket symbolizing people who have died from lack of healthcare on 4 June. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA
Similarly, we’ve all but stopped paying attention to climate change, the single greatest crisis the planet has ever faced. I sat down yesterday to read through the New York Times op-ed page from the start of the year to the first of June. There were, roughly, 660 essays, of which six seemed to bear some relation to this planet-scale trauma. Two, by Nick Kristof, were straightforward reminders of our peril, one from Bangladesh and one from Easter Island. Two, by Tom Friedman, touched on the political implications of climate change on troubles in the Gaza and Iran. One, by Paul Krugman, laid out the excellent news about falling prices of renewable energy. And one, by rookie righthander Bret Stephens, didn’t mention climate change specifically but did excoriate myself and Naomi Klein for our dimwitted refusal to understand that our “Promethean species has shown the will and the wizardry to master” any challenge that presents itself.
When Trump is baiting North Korea and separating infants from their mothers, how do you write about anything else?
One percent of the possible attention is too little for this crisis, but I’m not calling out the New York Times. Its editorial board, for decades, has been stalwart in its commitment to climate action. And I’m not sure if I was editor I would have done anything differently: how do you not write about Roseanne, about Rudy Giuliani, about Russia. When the president is baiting North Korea and separating infants from their mothers, how do you write about anything else? Its coverage of the current moment has been responsible, even exemplary. Thank heaven we’ve thought about harassment and about guns in new and powerful ways.
But the constant sense of crisis that Trump creates – the endless tweets implying he might be about to further upend the constitution, or launch some new trade war – takes a toll beyond each day’s chaos. It is robbing us of the concentration we need to focus on issues that demand that attention over the long term, attention that can’t endlessly be drawn away.
Climate change comes with a time limit. We don’t have four years to waste ignoring it, not when Arctic sea ice is reaching new lows and temperatures are breaking records. (This week, key scientists called for tacking on a Category 6 to the top of the hurricane intensity scale.) And not when there are promising fronts beyond Washington: the biggest climate news of the year was probably New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s January decision to divest its giant pension funds from fossil fuels and sue the big oil companies, but one that slid by amid the constant Trumpian clatter.
The biggest climate summit since Paris will happen this fall in California, but it may get lost amid season three of “Unpatriotic Football Players” or what ever new provocation Trump dreams up. And that would be terrible, because this is time we’ll never get back. Even if a new president someday takes up climate seriously, the carbon we’re spewing now will still be in the atmosphere to haunt us over geological time. Time is the trouble.
Krugman, writing in the fall of 2016 during the presidential debate season, said it well: “It’s time to end the blackout on climate change as an issue … There is, quite simply, no other issue this important, and letting it slide would be almost criminally irresponsible.”
And King, as was usually the case, said it even better: “Human progress,” he wrote, “never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
The Guardian · by Bill McKibben · June 7, 2018